I Am a Small Church Pastor, and I Am Not a Failure

sneak peek 200This is a big, bonus look inside the pages of The Grasshopper MythIt’s the first half of the first chapter (about 7 pages worth).

If you’re wondering whether-or-not to buy, read or recommend The Grasshopper Myth, this should help you decide.

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The Kindle edition is $9.99. The print edition is $11.99 plus S & H.

Chapter 1

Hi, I’m Karl and I’m a Small Church Pastor

If the title of this chapter sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous introduction, you’ve got the right idea.

I am a Small Church pastor.

And I am not a failure.

It’s taken me almost thirty years in pastoral ministry to write those last two sentences. Now that I’ve been able to write them, I know I’m finally entering a life of recovery from The Grasshopper Myth.


I Am a Small Church Pastor

I have been the Lead Pastor of three churches in the last 25 years. More than twenty years in my current congregation. Those churches were very different from each other in almost every way, except one.

They were all Small Churches.

Yet despite two-and-a-half decades in Small Church ministry I didn’t believe I was a Small Church pastor until very recently. I had convinced myself I was a big church pastor stuck in a Small Church building.

That’s where The Grasshopper Myth begins. At least it’s where it began for me.

I hate this job 200cI believed the myth so badly that I soon came to hate the small church building for what it was doing to me – how it was stifling my ministry.

Soon I started to hate myself for not being able to grow a big church.

Then I started hating the ministry.

Eventually I felt myself starting to hate God for leading me on, only to let me down.

I have no one but myself to blame for those feelings, but they didn’t come out of thin air. Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Over the past thirty-plus years I gave that consent to people who don’t even know me and who had no idea I was misusing their attempts to help me.

If you’re in pastoral ministry, this is not the first book on pastoring you’ve read. You’ve probably read many of the same books and attended the same conferences I have. You know the ones I’m talking about. A pastor goes to an existing church or starts a new one, and within a surprisingly short period of time the church grows, its ministries expand and the pastor makes a name for him or herself.

Other pastors start wondering how that pastor did it, so eager ministers are invited to hear how it was done. Other successful pastors are brought in to co-teach the conference, and the struggling pastors sit in hopeful anticipation as successful pastors share their stories and strategies.

I’ve been one of those struggling pastors. I still am in many ways. And I’ve received some very helpful ideas from those conferences and books.

Years ago, when I started attending them, the leaders in my church always knew when I’d been to one because I’d come home all revved up about the latest idea, convinced this was the key to getting our church to the next level.

Sometimes I’d take the principles I’d learned and re-teach them to my staff and volunteers. If a book was particularly good I’d make it required reading for them, then we’d gather and talk about it. Some church leaders would catch the same vision I had caught, but some would drag their heels.

The conference had told us about the heel-draggers, so I was prepared. They were the Problem People, the Vision-Killers, the We’ve-Never-Done-It-That-Way-Before crowd. I was not going to let them get me down as I boldly stepped out in this fresh, new way of doing church.

But somehow, I could never duplicate the success of the pastor who gave the seminar or wrote the book. After a few months of excitement, energy and expense, one or two ideas would make their way into our church’s culture, but most would fade away from lack of interest.

The book with all the answers would drift from my desk to my shelf to my closet and I would quietly blame the Heel-Draggers for killing God’s vision.

Over the years I found it more cost-effective to read more books and go to fewer seminars, but even the book-reading waned as the pattern repeated itself. The conferences and books were more likely to leave me discouraged and frustrated than excited and motivated.

So I quit.

For several years I stopped going to seminars and reading ministry books. I went to movies and read novels instead. It was a nice break from the pressure to perform, because when Will Smith saved the world he didn’t expect me to go home and do it too.

What was wrong with me? I would ask. I’m a bright person. I know I’m called to pastoral ministry. I know I’m called to pastor this specific church.

Why can’t I make it what it’s supposed to be?

Why won’t it grow?!

Hopper 200cIt wasn’t the fault of the seminars, the books or the pastors. Their successes made me feel inferior because I gave them consent by comparing myself to them. The more I admired them and tried to duplicate their success, the more I felt like the ten faithless Hebrew spies.

The megachurch pastors looked like giants, the giants felt like enemies, and I seemed like a grasshopper in my own eyes.

The megachurch pastors who wrote the books and taught the seminars never intended to do that to me. They were trying to use their successes as a tool to help me. I was the one who turned it as a weapon against myself.

And it all happened based on my failure to recognize one essential characteristic of my ministry identity.

I’m a Small Church pastor.

The first time I admitted that truth to myself was one of the most liberating moments of my life. As soon as I recognized it, I was OK with it. The more I became OK with, the better I did it. I finally knew who I was and how God made me to minister. I was free from the burden of trying to become someone I was never meant to be.


And I Am Not a Failure

If my church is small, how can I call myself, my church or my ministry a success?

How can I even call the church healthy?

Don’t all healthy things grow?

Yes they do. The problem is that too many of us have defined church success and health by numbers. And not just by any numbers. By two specific numbers. Butts in the seats and bucks in the offering.

The higher the better.

This obsession with numerical growth is not healthy.

Those who write the books and hold the seminars like to promote the success stories that result from their guidance, and understandably so. But pastors in my position see something they don’t see – the casualties on the other side of the ledger.

This drive for greater numbers and larger churches has probably resulted in more pastoral burnout than healthy, growing churches. Not to mention the tens of thousands of confused and damaged church attenders whose opinions and needs were belittled and shoved aside for newer and bigger things. Many of them left their churches permanently and never went back to any church at all.

In the chapter So What’s Wrong With Church Growth? I’ll challenge the premise that biblical growth and health can be accurately measured by counting bodies. But for now let me ask a question many pastors never ask – I know I went many years without considering it.

What is biblical church growth?

Forget the numbers.

What does Jesus measure?

I fear that most pastors are like the child in the following true story. I was in the church lobby after a Sunday service when a friend approached me with a smile. “You’re not going to believe what Lauren told me yesterday”, she said. “She couldn’t wait to grow up because she wanted to be bigger. She’s at the age where she thinks the older you get the bigger you get, and she can’t wrap her mind around the idea that her grandmother is older than me, since Grandma’s so tiny.”

I smiled, remembering when my own kids were that small and naïve.

RedwoodThe mom continued. “So there we were chatting about this, when all of a sudden, Lauren looked up at me and gasped ‘Mom! Pastor Karl must be the oldest person in the whole wide world!’”

I roared with laughter. At 6’6”, I was the tallest person six-year-old Lauren had ever met.

Yes, all healthy things grow. But growth is never as simple as older equals taller or healthy equals bigger. A pea will never be the size of a pumpkin and a rose won’t ever reach the height of a redwood no matter how much you water them, fertilize them or teach them redwood growth principles. It’s just not in their nature. All healthy, living things reach their optimal size at maturity, then they grow in different ways from that point on.

What if that principle applied to churches? I have come to believe it does. If the church is one body with many parts, isn’t it possible, even likely, that the body of Christ needs churches of all sizes?

I am not a failure if my church reaches its optimal stage of maturity, then starts growing in ways other than butts in seats for weekend services. In fact it is essential that a church grow in other ways than its size if it is to take the next critical step in true church growth – from being healthy to being healthful.

There is a difference between healthy and healthful. And that difference matters.

We went through years of struggles after I arrived at my current church. They’d had several short-term pastorates before me, and it had taken a toll. But eventually we arrived at a place where we knew the church was finally healthy for the first time in a decade or more.

Then one day I was sitting behind the wheel of my car in the church parking lot and I asked myself, “now what?” I’d spent almost four years helping this Small Church get over some bad history, and now it was healthy.

What do you do with a healthy church?

As I sat in my car I realized that the leadership and I had just spent years under the hood of our church, tinkering with all the mechanical problems, and now here I was sitting in the driver’s seat of a healthy church – and I had no idea where to take it!

The answer? Healthy things need to become healthful things.

Healthy plants take in the proper nutrients and grow strong, but if they provide no value to anyone outside themselves they’re not healthful. A healthful plant is not just healthy, but is also supplying valuable fruit to others. For example there are healthy mushrooms that are healthful to humans and healthy mushrooms that are poisonous, and therefore not healthful to us at all.

The body of Christ needs to be more conscious of what healthful growth looks like. In fact, a church can’t truly call itself healthy until it is healthful as well. And in Small Churches that awareness has to start with pastors being OK with who God has called us to be and what he has called us to do.

As I sat in the car that day, that’s what I realized. The next step was to take our healthy church and make it a healthful one for others to gain nourishment from. Not because we needed greater numbers, but because our community needed greater hope.

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So what do you think? Have you ever given others consent to make you, your church or your ministry feel inferior?

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(I Hate This Job photo from Nicholas A Tonelli • Redwood photo from Y • Flickr • Creative Commons license)


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